President Tokayev’s Special Request and What it Could Mean for His Relationship with Kazakhstan

Written by: Mira

Edited by: Martin

Visuals by: Ethan 

Kazakhstan has been under the international spotlight as a spike in the price of liquid petroleum gas (LPG) caused the country to experience its biggest wave of protests in history. The government’s decision to remove the price cap on LPG, which previously kept prices low, elicited initially peaceful protests on January 2. However, they quickly turned violent when government property was vandalized, as rioters possessing firearms took over the airport. Amid this chaos, gunfire erupted in Kazakhstan’s biggest city, Almaty, leading to the deaths of protestors and members of the security and police forces. 

On January 5, the president of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev made an urgent request for troops from the military alliance Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) without any effort to communicate with the protestors. Additionally, while calling for foreign assistance, Tokayev not only gave a shoot-to-kill order but also characterized all protesters as a “terrorist threat” (Vox), regardless of whether they were peaceful or not. Considering the root of these protests was the rise in LPG prices, Tokayev’s ruthless reaction to those involved with the protests combined with the extent protestors went to protest highlights that aspects of Kazakhstan’s history come into play. 

Kazakhstan’s economic and political power from its large oil reserves has always been concentrated in the hands of allies and family members of Kazakhstan’s previous president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Despite Tokayev succeeding Nazarbayev in 2019, many Kazakhs suspect the former president is the actual one in power because he handpicked Tokayev and had authoritarian reactions to previous protests, refusing to enact any political reforms. Thus, Tokayev’s authoritarian reaction towards Kazakh protestors expressing their anger over LPG prices fueled past grievances and reignited concerns over the amount of power Nazarbayev still has over the current Kazakhstan government. Having struggled under Nazarbayev’s regime-like rule for 30 years, the Kazakhs are desperate for political reforms and for their opinions to be heard. 

On the other hand, it is understandable Tokayev wanted to stop the protests swiftly to prevent deaths and further damage to public property. However, his violent categorizations will be absolute in eroding the public’s trust in him, especially the trust of those who feel underrepresented. With such a clear display of their president seeing their opinions as nothing but a threat, how can the Kazakh people be sure they still have the right to freedom of expression? If there are oppositions to governmental action, how can people be confident that Tokayev will not completely dismiss them in the name of regaining control? 

Additionally, Tokayev’s desperation to quell violence as fast as possible gives rise to doubts regarding the necessity of his request for troops. Protests began over the Kazakhstan government’s removal of the LPG price cap. All the more, Tokayev’s decision to involve foreign troops in a strictly domestic situation could be seen as an unnecessary abuse of power by the Kazakhstan government capable of regaining control. The US, which has been “closely following” the situation in Kazakhstan, has been vocal about their questions regarding the deployment of foreign troops. In particular, US State Department spokesman Ned Price remarked that the Kazakhstan Government has ample resources and is “a government that is and has been well-fortified”. Price’s statement clearly highlights Tokayev’s extreme use of military power as very unnecessary; the problem was not that the government was incapable of quelling the violence domestically, but rather that Tokayev was unwilling to do so himself.  

Ultimately, Tokayev’s struggle to maintain order and to do so in a way that is respectful to the rights of the protestors reveals concerns with Tokayev’s detached attitude towards the Kazakhs and his abuse of presidential power. Ironically, Tokayev released a televised statement during the protests promising to “uphold the security and tranquility of [Kazakhstan’s] citizens”. Yet, his lack of effort to be open towards the protestor’s grievances and his oppressive misuse of his power reveals he failed to do both. 

Works Consulted 

“Kazakhstan: Why Are There Riots and Why Are Russian Troops There?” BBC News, 7 Jan. 2022, Accessed 12 Jan. 2022.

Kirby, Jen. “How Protests in Kazakhstan Could Become a Geopolitical Crisis.” Vox, 8 Jan. 2022, Accessed 12 Jan. 2022.

Nechepurenko, Ivan, et al. “Russia Sends Troops to Kazakhstan to Help Quell Uprising.” The New York Times, 6 Jan. 2022,®i_id=132874856&segment_id=78884&te=1&user_id=b9124fef533ab90f0213951a86d34f05#kazakhstan-protests. Accessed 12 Jan. 2022.

Putz, Catherine. “Unprecedented Protests Rock Kazakhstan as Government Clings to Familiar Script.”, 5 Jan. 2022, Accessed 13 Jan. 2022.